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A Short History of Camouflage
From military concealment to getting noticed on the street.

For as long as man has been rifling through the bushes looking for animals to eat, he has appreciated how a creature’s fur, plumage or skin can help to thwart the attention of predators. Camouflage – derived from the French word camoufler, meaning “to disguise” – is the military art of such a deception, and over time it bled from the regiments of national armies to small guerrilla conflicts and student protest before finding a home in pop culture as a street batik. From army surplus stores to top-end street fashion labels like Duffer of St. George,  Maharishi, and Bathing Ape and on to the catwalk, in collections by Christian Lacroix, Comme des Garons, and Marc Jacobs, the diversity of camouflage knows no bounds.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, most armies wore bright bold colours as a means of identifying themselves on the battlefield through the chaos and smoke created by clouds of gunpowder, but it wasn’t until 1857 that British forces in India changed to neutral tones, first using tea, coffee and mud to dye the cloth. This range of muddy tan was called khaki, derived from the Urdu word for “dusty,” which was in turn taken from the Persian “khak,” meaning immersion in mud, tea, coffee, or coloured inks.

In 1909 Abbott Thayer wrote a book called Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, which quickly pricked the interest of Western armies – except the French, who passionately upheld red trousers as a symbol of French military doctrine. “Abolish red trousers? Never. France is red trousers,” said former Minister of War Eugne tienne.

It wasn’t until a crushing defeat at the hands of German troops in 1915 that France changed their tune and became the first nation to establish an official camouflage unit, dubbed La Section de Camouflage. It was headed by artist Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scvola, who in turn assembled the likes of Grant Woodand Jacques Villon, as well as a selection of respected painters, sculptors, artists, designers, architects, and stage artists.  They worked on pattern designs with techniques found in Cubist paintings and Renaissance trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) art, using a variety of fabrics such as canvas, raffa, burlap, and cocoa material.

While the first mass-produced military camouflage material was created by the Italians in 1929 and named telo mimetico (“mimetic cloth”), it only became an industrial-scale process during WWII. War departments now employed not only artists but psychologists and neurologists to study how the eye located and detected objects, and how designs broke apart into fractured complexities.

Prof. Johann Georg Otto Schick was responsible for designing Germany’s wide range of camouflage battle dress in WWII, mainly for the benefit of the elite Waffen SS troops. These included Palmenmuster (“palm pattern”), Sumpfmuster (“swamp pattern”), Rauchtarnmuster (“blurred edge”), and Erbsenmuster (“pea pattern”). Meanwhile, the Brits established the Camouflage Development and Training Centre, staffed by (amongst others) surrealist painter and poet Roland Penrose, abstract artist Frederick Gore, and the stage magician Jasper Maskelyne.

After WWII, the “frog skin” uniform worn by American troops in the Pacific was sold to France and worn by Foreign Legion parachutists during the First Indochina War, before they adopted the “lizard pattern.” The CIA also supplied “frog skin” camouflage to Brigade 2506 Cuban exiles in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and later the Montagnard counter-guerrillas in Vietnam. This was replaced by the “Tigerstripe” pattern; American Special Forces ended up copying its distinctive horizontal slashes of black, green, and tan. Although it was not an official government-issue uniform and was procured privately from civilian tailors, it became known as the “John Wayne pattern” because it was featured in Wayne’s 1968 film The Green Berets.

Military fatigues became a garment of protest in the 1960s, first worn by returning veterans, but more commonly used by hunters who bought up cheap army surplus. One such man was Jim Crumley, who drew tree trunks on some tie-dye clothes one day and invented hunting camo. Patented as the “Trebark” design, it went on to become the highest-selling camouflage in history, and its appeal extended beyond hunters. Manuel Noriega wore Trebark gear while U.S. troops hunted for him in the late 1980s, and Crumley himself reportedly entertained the idea of using the Panamanian general in an ad campaign with the slogan: “No wonder it took so long to capture him.”

Despite experimentation and a spectrum of patterns, there was no major evolution in camouflage until the development of pixelated patterns. The Canadian Forces CADPAT is one example, devised by using small micropatterns as opposed to larger macropatterns. The theory is that large blotches of color with sharp outlines are easier to see, while “blurring” the edges makes the outlines harder to discern. German, Danish, and Japanese militaries now use camouflage comprised of dots (flecktarn) instead of pixelated patterns, and further advances have been made creating varieties that elude infrared night vision.

Whatever breakthroughs are made in the art of concealment, as long as there are wars and hunting, there will be camouflage, and army surplus stores reselling it. Current combat patterns have not become as popular in street style as some older varieties, but give it time and a lull in the fighting and those patterns will bubble down to the sidewalk as well. This often happens by means of the rebel filter, when guerrillas mix and match camo with civilian wear, Libya being the most recent exhibition of such random fashion layering. Designers are inventing their own camo patterns, however, no longer relying on hand-me-down styles. After all, who really wants to be confused for a soldier or a rebel fighter when wandering down Queen Street? Well maybe the odd nutter would, but the rest of us know better.

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